Past Exhibitions

William West and the Regency Toy Theatre

An Exhibition in the Soane Gallery from 16 January to 27 March 2004 and National Tour 2005-6

In 1811, a London haberdasher, William West (1783-1854), began to issue sheets of engraved figures from current theatrical productions as an amusement for children. When the children who bought the figures started to use them to perform the plays on miniature stages, West found that he had accidentally stumbled on an invention.

West developed and perfected his invention over the next twenty years, commissioning wooden theatres for sale and publishing a run of plays which crossed the boundary from a souvenir to a practical toy. Although works of the later period are the best-known examples of English toy theatre, this exhibition will be limited to the early period, which has never been represented separately in an exhibition and offers a beguiling insight into the childhood pursuits, scenic art, production style and popular culture of the Regency.

The toy theatre of the Regency is closely related to the development of architecture during the same period, displaying the same historical and exotic styles, and the same effects of colour, perspective and lighting that were familiar to theatre audiences and were often reproduced in an architectural setting.

This exhibition will draw together the very best of West's characters and scenes from the 146 miniature plays he produced in his lifetime. The material, gathered from collections across England, will be arranged to display the different genres of play (Romantic, Classical, Nautical, Modern Life, Pantomime, Shakespeare) copied by West from the originals produced in the London theatres. Sheets of proscenium fronts and two examples of made-up fronts by West will also be shown.

Associated material will show sources for the imagery of the plays, such as other engravings or scene designs, the context of the London theatre (playbills, scripts etc), and the geographical location of the theatres and publishers, mainly in the area around Covent Garden. The available material on the use of toy theatres in the home will also be included.

A full-colour catalogue will accompany the exhibition. The catalogue will include essays enlarging on the exhibition themes by the curators, and a representative sample of illustrations, very few of which will have been reproduced before. William West and the Regency Toy Theatre is curated by a team from Pollock's Toy Museum, which houses one the England's foremost collections of 'juvenile drama'.

The Soane is pleased to announce that the exhibition will go on to four other venues in England during 2004 and 2005, thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Catalogue available from Museum shop